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Kathryn Kalinak is Professor of English and Film Studies at Rhode Island College. Her extensive writing on film music includes numerous articles and several books, the most recent of which is Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. Below, she has made predictions for the Oscar Music (Original Score) category, and picked her favorites.
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This Sunday’s Oscars will recognize an exceptionally fine slate of film scores, and it’s nice to see such a deserving group of composers. The nominees represent a range of films and scores including the lush and symphonic (Avatar), whimsical (Fantastic Mr. Fox), edgy and tension-producing (The Hurt Locker), eclectic and genre-bending (Sherlock Holmes), and beautifully melodic (Up). While there are always surprises, I’ve considered each composer and score, coming to the following conclusions and predictions.
James Horner has been around a long time, having been nominated ten times in the last 32 years, and receiving Best Score and Best Song Oscars for Titanic. He’s a pro at what he does best: big, symphonic scores that hearken back to the classical Hollywood studio years. Horner’s music gives Avatar exactly what it needs—warmth and emotional resonance—and connects the audience to a series of images and characters that might be difficult to relate to otherwise. If Horner wins Sunday night, look for the evening to go Avatar‘s way.
On Fantastic Mr. Fox:
With six film scores in 2009, Alexandre Desplat must be Hollywood’s hardest working composer, not to mention his four scores in 2008 and six in 2007. Desplat’s score for Fantastic Mr. Fox is a marvel: whimsical and inventive, a perfect match for this quirky stop-action animated film. When was the last time you heard a mandolin, ukulele, celeste, banjo, or a Jew’s harp as a featured instrument in a Hollywood film score? Nominated twice before for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Queen, Desplat is due. It would be lovely to see him take home an Oscar.
On The Hurt Locker:
Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders are relative newcomers to the game, but already Beltrami has an Oscar nomination (for 3:10 to Yuma). The cinematography is so edgy in this film, and the editing so frenetic that I was on the riveted from start to finish. Beltrami and Sanders’ score is a key element in the film’s creation of that tension. Music here is not an “add-on” but an integral part of the anxious mood of the film—a really effective example of composing to meet the needs of the film, especially as the sound effects blended into the score so seamlessly. The score award is often an indicator of things to come on Oscar night, and as in the case with Horner, if Beltrami and Sanders are called to the podium, look for the evening to go The Hurt Locker‘s way.
On Sherlock Holmes:
Hans Zimmer is the go-to guy for big action-adventure films, especially of the darker or more cerebral variety, so this score was a surprise to me. While certainly you can hear the driving rhythms, big brass instrumentation, and tremolo strings characteristic of the genre, Zimmer has gone way out here, combining these conventional elements with an eclectic (to say the least) instrumentation. The score sounds alternately like a gypsy orchestra, a klezmer band, and a street corner Salvation Army band. Eclectic and fun, the score adds an element of unexpectedness to the film as if to announce: “This is not your mother’s Sherlock Holmes.” Zimmer has been a solid presence in the Hollywood scoring scene for years with seven nominations and one win for The Lion King. Alongside Desplat, I certainly feel he deserves this award.
What Michael Giacchino’s score has is melody and a beautiful melody at that. “Married Life”—the tune that we first hear accompanying the montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage—is a haunting waltz which we hear repeated throughout the film. This is Giacchino’s second nomination, after being noted for Ratatouille. Up is highly regarded within the Hollywood community (witness it’s nomination for Best Picture), and this may be the one film score that Academy voters recognize—which could be the deciding factor here. I think this is our Oscar winner.